The Russian Air Force has conducted airstrikes for the second day in row, and according to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the force is not targeting “beyond ISIL (ISIS), al Nusra or other terrorist groups recognized by the United Nations Security Council or Russian law.
When asked what groups fell under the heading of “other terrorist groups,” Lavrov quipped, “If it looks like a terrorist, if it acts like a terrorist, if it walks like a terrorist, if it fights like a terrorist, it’s a terrorist, right?”
As we alluded to yesterday with the report on Russia’s opening volley, there are many questions about the execution of the airstrikes, the intended target(s), the selection and effectiveness of the weapons used, and the fact the Russian general made a thinly-veiled demand to clear the airspace of any American warplanes.
At this point, all indications are Russian airstrikes will be directed not just at ISIS, but also at forces in opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. According to Department of Defense officials, there were coordination talks anticipated between U.S. and Russian forces prior to that country’s first combat operations, but that didn’t happen. Putin also gave President Obama assurances the strikes would only target ISIS. That, by all indicators, didn’t happen either. Color me shocked.
So what does it all mean?
We first want to take a look at what the Russians have brought to the fight from an equipment standpoint. At the last public count, thirty-five Russian warplanes have come to roost at an air base near Latakia, Syria. Of those, four of them are Sukhoi Su-30SM Flanker-Cs, widely considered to be the most advanced variant of the “Super Flanker” family. It is considered to be a “Gen 4+” fighter, similar in capabilities to the F-15E Strike Eagle and F/A-18F Super Hornet, but particularly capable in the air-to-air arena.
In addition, Putin has deployed six Su-34 Fullbacks, also a member of the Super Flanker family and the design replacement to the older Sukhoi Su-24 Fencer which, incidentally, is also present at Latakia. The remainder of the tactical aircraft appear to be Su-25 Frogfoots, the Russian answer to the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II. So while it’s completely reasonable that you would bring Fencers and Frogfoots to fight the Islamic State, why would you need to bring your best Gen 4+ assets to fight an enemy without an air force of its own?
While that certainly raises an eyebrow, what is more concerning is the quality of new air defense systems seen on the ground in Syria. Among the publicly-known threats, one of those causing the most concern is the Pantsir-S1, known in NATO parlance as the SA-22 “Greyhound.” An advanced component of the IADS, the Greyhound is a mobile system and features passive electronically scanned array (PESA) radars, integral surface to air missiles (SAMs), and two twin-barreled 30mm anti-aircraft guns. It’s a current-generation threat, and very lethal. Once again, to fight an enemy without an air force, why would you bring one of your most advanced mobile SAM systems?
Simple answer to both? You wouldn’t–unless you were moving pieces around the board in accordance with a larger vision.
All appearances indicate the Russians are capitalizing on an opportunity to expand their sphere of influence back into the Mediterranean region, an area generally dominated by the west for the past two decades. With the mentioned systems, the pieces are in place to create an Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2AD) bubble in the eastern Med, done entirely with the “cooperation” of Assad’s regime in Syria. If Assad is emboldened by the presence of the Russian military, he may decide that the anti-ISIS coalition, led by the United States, is no longer welcome to unfettered use of his country’s airspace. So not only can he say “No,” but he now has an increased number of assets to enforce his decision, and with the support of Russia.
In a larger sense, it’s also a huge victory for Iran–also known to have close economic and military ties to Russia. What do I mean? It severely hampers the ability to militarily enforce any sanctions imposed against Iran’s nuclear program by anyone coming from the direction of the Mediterranean Sea. There is a joint Russian/Iraqi/Iranian “intelligence” cell formed to share information and help combat the Islamic State. There are Iranian military forces in Iraq. There are Iranian military forces on the ground in Syria. Iran has very recently gone shopping for state-of-the-art Russian air defense systems, satellite technology, and other goodies that are downright not…neighborly. Starting to connect those dots?
So where does all of this leave the United States? Honestly, it leaves us on the sidelines while the Russian sphere of influence extends from the eastern Mediterranean, across the Levant, and into Iran–all with the support and “cooperation” of those nations. Let’s face it: air operations being conducted against the Islamic State are largely ineffective, due to hyper-restrictive RoE–as we’ve discussed before. And, despite the warrior spirit in American pilots and the willingness to put their fangs through the floorboards and go into the fray, that willingness will never overcome the exceptionally low acceptable level of risk and lower acceptable level of loss. The U.S. simply does not have the stomach to do what needs to be done.
What is happening right now in the eastern Mediterranean is a direct result of shortcomings in leadership, plain and simple. It would be irresponsible to point the finger strictly at the Executive Branch; the Legislative Branch also holds a large degree of culpability in the existing foreign policy of the United States being the laughing stock of the rest of the world. As a result, as willing as our military’s senior leadership may be, they aren’t able. Call that stance what you will, but the fact is, our men and women fighting downrange were sent into this particular fight with both hands and one foot tied behind their back.
So the Schoolyard Bully has puffed up and said, “This is my playground. If you want to stay, you’ll do it on my terms…or you can fight me for it.”
More to come…
(Featured Photo courtesy of AP/Reuters)